Death as politics, death as policy
The recent passing of former President Benigno S. Aquino III appears to be the outcome of his longstanding ailments. But already, it is fodder to conspiracy theories, as the general public and apparently the government itself were not privy to the gravity of his illness.
It will not be easy for the pundits and the people to process its possible political consequences. But it is not unusual for the so-called “delawan” to highlight his virtues, and for those on the other side of the fence to do the opposite. The latter have even accused the former of practicing “necropolitics.” The term has a haunting appeal, but it is imprecise.
In “Necropolitics” (2003), the philosopher Achille Mbembe approached sovereignty from the view that it resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die, “… to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.” Given this characterization, the first persons who spring to mind are not the delawan, but Pol Pot, Hitler, and their ilk.
Yet it appears that our very own 1987 Constitution contains necropolitical aspects, as it provides in part that no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law, and permits Congress to impose the death penalty for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes.
Nevertheless, the seemingly necropolitical provisions of our Constitution are founded on law and due process. And Congress has abolished the death penalty, although there are proposals for its reinstatement. Furthermore, these provisions must be contrasted with the pronouncements of the current administration, which labels alleged addicts as inhuman, advocates killings as an instrument in the execution of the so-called drug war, and dismisses as “collateral damage” the deaths of others. There, too, is the recent proposal to employ a “coalition” of armed civilians — a vigilante army — to “enforce the laws,” as well as the apparently preferential treatment for some areas in the imposition of lockdowns and the allocation of COVID-19 vaccines.
Now, while the dirges of the delawan are not necropolitics, these are political necromancy. These connect with the dead for the purpose of divination, to foretell future events, and to discover hidden knowledge. Especially because the 2022 elections are just around the corner.
Then again, political necromancy is not an exclusively delawan phenomenon. Traditional politicians of all persuasions invariably provoke and then exploit the people’s visceral reactions to the telenovela-like twists and turns of Philippine politics.
See for example the politicos who abruptly resort to hospital arrest when warrants of arrest are issued in their name. The invariable invocation by political dynasts of the purported legacy of their forebears. And the Marcos family’s longstanding, and ultimately successful, campaign for the government to allow their patriarch to be interred at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
Those among us who live comfortable lives can afford to resign themselves to the presence of necropoliticians and necromancers from all colors of the political spectrum, and to be amused by their occasionally amusing antics. They see no need to disrupt the status quo, since they are not directly and/or adversely affected by our leaders’ draconian acts and omissions. However, the duty of our leaders is to protect and promote the welfare of everyone, not to entertain one part of society at the expense of the rest. And all of us have obligations not just to ourselves and our families, but also to our community and country.
It does none of us any good to remain under those who perpetuate themselves in power by consulting oracles and Ouija boards to call on the ghosts of politicians past. Or by ruling through threats and intimidation, whataboutism, and diversion. The days of panem et circenses (bread and circuses) are over.
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Jose Mari BFU Tirol is dean of the University of San Agustin College of Law.
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